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28 Jun, 2019 / by Shirley Surya, Rebecca Yiu

An Archive of Personal Fragments: Investigating Wang Dahong

White plastic building model of two flat, square buildings next to each other. They are surrounded by a low wall.

Wang Dahong, Model, Luo Residence on Songjiang Road (1955), Taipei, Taiwan, 2016, acrylic and fibre-reinforced plastic, M+, Hong Kong. © Family of Wang Dahong, The Society for Research and Preservation of Wang Da-hong’s Architecture

Wang Dahong (1917-2018) is often regarded as the father of modern architecture in Taiwan. M+ is home to Wang’s personal archive, donated by his family. The archive includes not only architectural drawings, but also personal essays, notes, letters, photographs, and sketchbooks.

The majority of Wang’s architectural drawings were donated to the National Taiwan Museum in the early 2000s. Considering the significance of his practice, the M+ curatorial team expressed interest in collecting any related material still kept by him and his family. This resulted in a group of materials⁠—generously offered by his family—that is one of the most fragmentary, but also personal, archives in the M+ Collections. It reveals Wang’s multifaceted practice within and beyond the field of architecture as an architect, writer, translator, and poet.

In this article Shirley Surya (Curator, Design and Architecture) and Rebecca Yiu (Archives Assistant) discuss both the challenges and pleasures of organising and understanding the Wang Dahong archive.

Who Was Wang Dahong?

Gelatin silver print of a model of a large building with a courtyard in front. The model is viewed from above. The building has a traditional Chinese style roof with modern elements, such as not being as curved upwards as more traditional roofs.

Wang Dahong, Photograph, preliminary architectural model, National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (1965–1972), Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1965], gelatin silver print, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Shirley: Wang was born in Beijing to the Republic of China’s first minister of foreign affairs. He was trained in architecture at Cambridge University and Harvard Graduate School of Design, where his classmates included important architects of his generation like I. M. Pei and Philip Johnson. He was taught by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school.

Wang first returned to China in 1947, before finally settling in Taiwan in 1952, due to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There, he began his search for an ‘architecture of new China’.

His works—which include more than 100 buildings in Taiwan—were known for their strong sense of proportion, clarity, and simplicity of form. His key works show Wang’s profound understanding, reinterpretation, and integration of both Euro-American modernism and traditional Chinese architecture.

How Was the Archive Collected and Catalogued?

Two photographs side by side. The monochrome photograph on the left depicts a building viewed from a distance in between some trees. The building is round and slightly raised, with walls completely made out of glass. The photograph on the right depicts a white building that takes up the corner of an urban street. It is curved, with eight rows of windows close to each other.

Wang Dahong, Photograph, exterior view, Taiwan Golf and Country Club (circa 1963), Tan-shui (Tamsui), Taiwan, [circa 1963], gelatin silver print; Slide, exterior view, Asia Cement Building (circa 1966), Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1966], colour slide, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Shirley: As part of our interest in under-represented narratives of modern architecture in Asia, this was one of the first architectural archives that we acquired from outside Hong Kong.

Knowing that the family had donated most of Wang’s architectural drawings to the National Taiwan Museum, we told them that we’d be interested in acquiring anything else they still had that was related to Wang’s life and work. At first, they weren’t sure if there was anything left. A few months later, however, they offered us materials from a personal folder that Wang himself had put together throughout the years. This is why the archive consists of personal documents that are often difficult to identify.

In Europe and America, where there is a more developed archival practice, architectural archives are often put together in a more systematic and comprehensive way. This tends to not be the case in Asia, unless archives come in the form of project archives from architecture firms. We were therefore not surprised to find Wang’s personal archive to be a rather ‘disorderly’ one. We’re grateful to Wang’s family for entrusting us with these materials, as they provide an intimate glimpse into the architect’s interests and work across various fields.

The archive is an example of the reality of ‘incomplete’ archives, and the challenge of constructing histories through fragments.

A drawing of a large building complex with a tall tower rising from its centre. The tower is narrow with a wide, hexagonal top that has the appearance of an observation tower.

Wang Dahong, Photograph, perspective rendering, [compound shopping mall?], 6 August 1964, gelatin silver print, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Rebecca: Out of all of the archives we have at M+, this has been the most challenging one to catalogue and process. It only has 196 items—including photos, negatives, slides, clippings, sketches, correspondence, and architectural drawings—but the challenge came from how fragmented and personal it was.

It took around a year for me to catalogue this archive, from studying Wang Dahong’s life, to cataloguing and storing the material. When I first looked at this archive, I couldn’t tell how many projects it contained. There were architectural drawings and plans, but many of them were from unidentified projects. There were no hints—such as the building’s name or date—as to which projects they belonged to.

Many building projects had no information on how they were revised and developed over time. I needed to figure out which stage of revision in a project that certain drawings belonged to. I carefully studied the mediums (pencil, pen, paper) of different sketches. If they belonged to the same revision, they would be drawn using the same colour, or using papers of the same size and texture. Based on these differences, I could group drawings into different revisions. Then, I could figure out which revision was the latest and earliest based on the changes.

There are still many unidentified architecture projects in this archive. However, people are still updating and researching his work. In the future, we hope that researchers will help further assess the archive and identify these projects in the M+ Research Centre.

What Is in the Archive?

Shirley: Some of the key identified architectural projects in this archive include Hong-Lu Apartment, the unbuilt National Palace Museum in Taiwan, and the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. These projects show the influences and approaches that underpinned most of Wang’s practice. They demonstrate his application of building technologies and materials, redefinition of notions of luxury and simplicity, and thoughtful resolution of multiple cultural influences.

Hong-Lu Apartment

Photograph of a room with white brick walls and a grey floor. There is a round hole acting as a doorway in the far end of the room. A dining set up is set up in one end of the room, and a collection of sofas, chairs, and poufs are set up around a table in the other end. A man sits on one of the chairs and looks towards the camera.

Wang Dahong, Interior photograph, living room of Wang Dahong's apartment, Hong Lu Apartment House (circa 1964), Jinan Road, Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1964], chromogenic colour print, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Wang freely referenced archetypes of both European and Chinese classicism. This was not so much to embody a cultural identity, but to evoke certain spatial qualities of existing buildings. While his work is informed by his Chinese ethnic and cultural background, he also aspired to a sense of universality as much as to cultural specificity. His use of spatial concepts—of European or Chinese classicism—was therefore far from simplistic, but often applied with a slight subversion.

This can be seen in Wang’s earlier residential designs. In these, the use of the Mies-ian open plan—prevalent in the design by architects of his generation—was often thwarted by indirect paths through his interiors. This recreated the effect of finding one’s way through the Chinese garden, or the sense of interiority of a Chinese walled house. This was expressed in his design for one of Taiwan’s earliest multi-story apartments, the four-story Hong-Lu Apartment on Jinan Road (1964). Its window-less frontage, enclosed entryway, and circuitous floor plan creates an unfolding effect, as though one is journeying through a Chinese garden.

Photograph of a room with white brick walls and a grey floor. There is a red door and a red wardrobe built into the wall. A large bed with a yellow quilt cover takes up most of the image. The ceiling is golden.

Wang Dahong, Interior photograph, bedroom of Wang Dahong's apartment, Hong Lu Apartment House (circa 1964), Jinan Road, Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1964], chromogenic colour print, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

The apartment’s interior shows Wang’s attempt to resolve multiple classical and modern cultural conceptions of the home. An example is the varied use of the moon gate—traditionally a feature of an outdoor garden—as part of a house facade or interior walls.

A magazine spread showing an article titled ‘The Atrium Town House, Dahong Wang’. It shows multiple renderings and a floor plan of an atrium townhouse designed by Wang Dahong.

A magazine featuring Wang Dahong’s atrium townhouse design, with a very Mies-ian open plan. Wang Dahong, Extract, 'The atrium town house', Interiors to Come, January 1945, printing ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016

Competition Submission for the National Palace Museum in Taiwan

The degree to which Wang sought to express a recognisable cultural identity through architectural design varied for different projects. This is particularly so in his competition scheme for the National Palace Museum of Taiwan (1961). Its overhanging shell roof, a hyperbolic paraboloid, shows how the exploration toward structural innovation seemed as integral as Wang’s concern for a ‘new Chinese architecture’.

It was known that this scheme was the jury’s winning choice in the competition. However, the design was not implemented. Instead, the authorities chose to implement a design by another architect, Huang Baoyu, which was more traditionally Chinese. It was characterised by a monumental traditional Chinese palatial structure, with a yellow roof ridge and green ceramic tiles.

Photograph of a sepia-toned architectural drawing of a long building with a flat roof. The building is in a park-like area, with a few people walking around it. The walls of the building sit on top of a wooden framework, supported by poles on two sides. There is a small pond with concrete bridges in front of the building.

Wang Dahong, Photographs, exterior rendering, competition submission for National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1961], gelatin silver print, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

White plastic building model of a long building with a flat roof. The building is in a park-like area. The walls of the building sit on top of a wooden framework, supported by poles on two sides. There is a small pond with concrete bridges in front of the building.

Wang Dahong, Model, Competition Submission For The National Palace Museum (故宮博物院競圖計畫案) (1960-1961), Taipei, Taiwan, made circa 1960, reproduced circa 2006, acrylic and FRP (fibre-reinforced plastic). M+, Hong Kong. © Family of Wang Dahong, The Society for Research and Preservation of Wang Da-hong’s Architecture

National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

In designing the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei (1965-1972), Wang faced a similar issue of how design was politicised in the context of 1960s Taiwan. There was an ongoing nationalistic movement advocated by the Taiwanese government. Forms of traditional Chinese architecture were encouraged to augment Taiwan’s cultural identity.

Gelatin silver print of a model of a large building with a courtyard containing a pond in front. The model is viewed from straight ahead. The building has a traditional Chinese style roof with modern elements, such as not being as curved upwards as more traditional roofs.

Wang Dahong, Photograph, preliminary architectural model, National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (1965–1972), Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1965], gelatin silver print, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

The above photograph of the presentation model shows Wang’s original design of the building. It, along with numerous original plans, reveals his attention to the Hall’s formal and structural integrity, its monumental spatial qualities as a public building, and its relationship to its surroundings. Its roof alludes to a ministerial hat in the ancient Chinese court.

While the building’s scheme was implemented, Wang had to compromise by altering the roof. He was asked to make it more explicit in its association to traditional palatial Chinese roofs. He changed its more rectilinear form into an exaggerated upturned Chinese palatial roof—as seen in the image of the completed building below. Wang considered the building his ‘most difficult project ever’.

Printout of a monochrome photograph of a large building with a body of water in the foreground. The building has an upturned traditional Chinese roof.

Wang Dahong, Copy photograph, exterior view, National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (1965–1972), Taipei, Taiwan, [digitised 2000s], printout on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Essays and Articles

Shirley: Apart from materials representing Wang’s architectural projects, the archive includes materials that reveal Wang as not only an architect, but a poet, writer, translator, and major cultural figure in Taiwan. These include some wonderful drafts of his published essays. The above essay, ‘Domus (A Study in the Philosophy of Living)’, shows his interest in ritual and habitation, and his aspiration towards a sense of cultural specificity and universality. By citing how the ‘home’ is conceived by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, and the Chinese, Wang was keen on investigating this across cultures.

A page from a typed essay draft titled ‘DOMUS (A Study in the Philosophy of Living)’. The draft is covered by notes written in pen, with words and sentences being crossed out and added. The draft is typed on a paper with a letterhead consisting of red Chinese text.

Wang Dahong, Draft essay, 'Domus (a study in the philosophy of living)', [1947–1949], typewriter ink and ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A page from a typed essay draft titled ‘DOMUS (A Study in the Philosophy of Living)’. The draft is covered by notes written in pen, with words and sentences being crossed out and added. The draft is typed on a paper with a letterhead consisting of red Chinese text.

Wang Dahong, Draft essay, 'Domus (a study in the philosophy of living)', [1947–1949], typewriter ink and ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

An interesting detail from this essay draft is the letterhead, which comes from Allied Architects [五聯建築師事務所], a key firms that originated in Shanghai. When Wang Dahong returned to Shanghai around 1947, he met up with four other architects from Shanghai and Hong Kong, and they established Allied Architects in Shanghai. The names of these architects—including Wang Dahong—are included in the letterhead.

A magazine spread showing an article titled ‘Variety of Houses from Identical Prefabricated Units’ of General Panel Corp., Designed by Harvard Students’. In one paragraph, the sentence ‘The house on these two pages was designed by Dahong Wang’ is underlined in red pen.

Wang Dahong, Extract, 'Variety of houses from identical prefabricated units of general panel crop', New Pencil Points, December 1943, printing ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016

The archive includes five original articles published between 1943–1947 that feature Wang Dahong’s early designs as a Harvard Graduate School of Design student and graduate.

The earliest article, ‘Variety of Houses from Identical Prefabricated Units of General Panel Corp., designed by Harvard Students’ published in New Pencil Points (1943), features Wang’s work, as well as that of his classmate I. M. Pei. It shows the creative application of a prefabricated wood-panel system co-designed by Konrad Wachsmann and Wang’s teacher Walter Gropius. In the article, someone has underlined the sentence, ‘The house on these two pages was designed by Dahong Wang’.

Personal Sketches, Notes, and Unknowns

Drawing of a potted plant sitting on grey surface in front of a grey wall. It throws a shadow onto the surface and wall. The dark shadow of a butterfly can be seen next to it.

Wang Dahong, Le Papillon Blanc, November 1995, crayon on canvas, typewriter ink and ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Rebecca: In addition to the architectural projects and the published materials, Wang’s archive contains dozens of correspondence, essays and other writings, personal sketches, and miscellaneous items. This is why this archive can be considered the most personal archive that we have at M+.

Sketch in pen on a slightly ripped piece of paper of a mountain landscape. A clock sits in the sky, positioned like the sun.

Wang Dahong, Sketch, mountain and a clock, [1950s–2000s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Most of these items offer very few clues as to why or when they were made. Many papers have sketches or notes on both sides of the sheet, but often appear to be unrelated and done at completely different times. One sketch includes a strange landscape drawing with a clock in the sky, and another a flower pot with a butterfly titled in French Le Papillon Blanc (White Butterfly).

Two images side by side. The images show the front and back of a piece of paper. The image on the left shows the front, which contains a typed paragraph introducing readers to a book called ‘Phantasmagoria’. It is titled ‘Warning to our readers’, and the text details how the English used in the book is an ‘English of the future’. The image on the right shows the back of the paper, and is filled with sketches of chairs and dressing tables done in blue pen.

Wang Dahong, Draft introduction, '"Phantasmagoria", memoirs of a child's former life, written on board the spaceyacht Medusa, in the year of our Lord 2069', May 1990, ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

The above sketch of unidentified furniture includes chairs and dressing tables (known as coiffeuse in French, which was written next to the sketches by Wang). These were sketched on the back of a page featuring a draft of the introduction to a science fiction novel was working on for decades titled Phantasmagoria, which was finally published in 2013.

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch book, architectural projects, [1950s–1990s], ink and graphite on paper, graphite on transparent paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids. The triangle appears to be divided into rooms with tables and desks.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch book, architectural projects, [1950s–1990s], ink and graphite on paper, graphite on transparent paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids. The triangle appears to be divided into rooms with tables and desks.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch book, architectural projects, [1950s–1990s], ink and graphite on paper, graphite on transparent paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids. The triangle appears to be divided into rooms with tables and desks.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch book, architectural projects, [1950s–1990s], ink and graphite on paper, graphite on transparent paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids. The triangle appears to be divided into rooms with tables and desks.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

A sketch of a triangular floor plan shape consisting of a triangle shape filled with grids.

Wang Dahong, Sketch plan, unidentified architectural project, [1950s–1990s], ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

This shape above is clearly very special. I can’t identify it, but it reoccurs both in a sketchbook and in his unidentified sketches. It could be an imagined design that was never intended to be built. I don't know what kind of building it’s supposed to be. It looks a bit like an office, since there are so many desks inside.

Paper with a typed poem titled ‘Song’ by T. S. Eliot. Underneath the typed poem is a handwritten translation in Chinese.

Wang Dahong, Draft translation of the poem 'Song', by T.S. Eliot, [1980s], typewriter ink and ink on paper; Walter Gropius, Translation of poem, 'An Old Man on the River Bank'. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

Shirley: These personal items show many different facets of Wang Dahong. Fluent in English, Chinese, and French, Wang was also a prolific translator and literary enthusiast. The archive contains multiple examples of poetry transcripts and translations, such as the above draft translation of T. S. Eliot’s poem Song into Chinese.

Two images side by side. The image on the left shows a piece of paper with a handwritten poem signed ‘by the Greek poet Seferis, Walter Gropius, Cambridge/Mass/1968.’ The image on the right shows the same poem typed out on a piece of paper with a letterhead that reads ‘Dahong Wang’ in red.

Walter Gropius, Translation of poem, 'An Old Man on the River Bank', by Giorgos Seferis, 1968, ink on paper; Wang Dahong, Translation of poem, 'An Old Man on the River Bank', by Giorgos Seferis, [circa 1971], printing ink and typewriter ink on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016

Above is a translation of part of a poem by the Greek poet George Seferis, handwritten by Walter Gropius and sent to Wang Dahong in a letter. Wang later re-typed this poem into his own company letterhead. This seems to indicate Wang’s affinity to the poem’s call for simplicity in one’s art, which Wang aspired to. Wang’s complex sentiment of simplicity is not about asceticism, nor is it mutually exclusive to luxury or elegance. It is poignantly expressed in the last paragraph of his article ‘Domus (A Philosophy of Living)’:

"What pattern shall our life take under ideal social conditions? The great religious leaders teach a life of simplicity. And simplicity is the keynote underlying all harmonious and full life. Yet, it is not the monastic simplicity, and austerity. The pattern is set upon simplicity and austerity. Yet, there shall be elegance and luxury. Not the elegance of fashion, nor the luxury coveted by the bourgeoisie and preached by Hollywood."

A new year greeting card with a gold background and the repeated words ‘Happy New Year’ in red Chinese text, portrayed as if trickling downwards.

Architectural Firm: Dahong Wang & Associates, New Year greeting card, Dahong Wang & Associates, [1950s–1990s], printing ink on paperboard, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2016. © Family of Wang Dahong

This inclination for spartan luxury is distilled in this lovely new year greeting card for his company. The repeated red Chinese characters that read ‘Happy New Year’ trickle down the gold-stamped greeting card designed by Wang.

As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). This interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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